Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina Journal #7: Guilt, Responsibility, and politics
By Peter Lippman
November 20, 2012

2012 Journal index

Journal 1: Sarajevo. September 25
Journal 2: Tuzla. October 11
Journal 3: Srebrenica. October 13
Journal 4: Bratunac, Višegrad, Elections. October 26
Journal 5: Krajina - Banja Luka. November 6
Journal 6: Krajina - Kozarac, Prijedor. November 12
Journal 7: Guilt, Responsibility, and Politics. November 20
Journal 8:Travnik, Mostar, Animal Farm. December 13
Journal 9
: Activism in Sarajevo, Return to Srebrenica, Prijedor Revisited, December 19
Journal 10:
Krila Nade; The Missing; Tycoon Arrested; March 1st Coalition, December 26
Journal 11: Macedonia and Kosovo, January 2, 2013
Journal 12: The Roma of Kosovo, January 11, 2013
Journal 13: A Visit to Germany, January 29, 2013

Previous journals and articles

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The subject of guilt and responsibility has comes up recently in conversation with a couple of friends in Bosnia. For those who ponder the responsibility of a population for the actions of its representatives this question, in fact, never goes away.

Generally, even in societies that are not considered "democratic," people have ways to influence the actions of their government. With influence comes responsibility, and then there are uncomfortable questions that come along with this responsibility. For example, most educated people ordinarily are reluctant to assign collective responsibility to an ethnic or national group. But what is the nature of the responsibility of the German people during the 1930s and 1940s? And how would you describe the responsibility of the American people in the 1960s and 1970s with regard to Vietnam?

For human rights activists, questions such as these have a particular impact, because we are concerned with getting at the roots of a given social problem. So, we must point out the source of a crime against humanity, a genocide, or an environmental rape, for example, and figure out effective ways to work against these evils.

If you accept as part of the definition of fascism as a social movement that it involves mass support, then the implication of this is that a mass of people are responsible for that fascism.

I can never forget that people are just people, inclined to take care of themselves before taking care of others. Religion and philosophy tell us not to behave that way, but we don't listen. Or we try, but it's hard. My point here is that I find it understandable when people keep their heads down while crimes are going on. I just wish they wouldn't.

Back in October I was sitting in the old section of Sarajevo with my friend Hikmet, the Višegrad activist I've mentioned before. In that city, terrible abuses took place in 1992, with mass expulsion, mass execution, throwing people into the Drina River and shooting them, and locking people in houses and setting them on fire. For all practical purposes Višegrad, whose population was once more than fifty percent Muslim, is now empty of Muslims.

Hikmet told me, "
I believe that the people of Višegrad are guilty. Višegrad is a small town. Everyone knew what was happening. Everyone knew who was running things. No one did anything. Now, someone could at least be anonymously informing the authorities about the mass graves. Someone did that in Foča and 55 remains were found. But no one has done that in Višegrad. They are all guilty. I think Višegrad should be punished. If we [the Bosniak population of Višegrad] are not allowed to live there, the people of Višegrad should not be allowed to live well. And they aren't - people are leaving."

These were the words of Hikmet. When he spoke of punishing the entire town of Višegrad because they were "all guilty," I felt uncomfortable because I oppose collective punishment on principle. This tactic, used in war and in low-intensity conflicts over the millennia, has been outlawed, but it is still widely practiced.

I contemplate my own involvement in wrongs that are being done, for example, in the vast US financial support for Israel's atrocious, long-term mistreatment of the Palestinians. I don't like to feel guilty and I don't respond well to shaming. But I am embarrassed by US policies in general. I prefer to ward off a sense of guilt by being responsible, by trying to take responsibility, as an activist, to make these things stop.

Other human rights activists that I know have different answers. One prominent leftist commentator, John Gerassi, was a professor at Queens College in New York a couple of decades ago when I studied there. He told me, "The IRA has the right to attack British civilians because they are upholding a fascist regime in Northern Ireland."

I wasn't comfortable with this reasoning. And for that matter, the Palestine solidarity organization that I work with explicitly condemns the targeting of civilians as a tactic, as perpetrated by any side.

I had the chance to talk to Hikmet about these same questions again a few weeks later, and he had the opportunity to elaborate. I said, "Aren't we Americans just as guilty with regard to Palestine as the Serbs of Višegrad were for what happened in 1992? It's being done with our tax money."

Hikmet answered, "
You can't compare Americans' responsibility in Palestine with the local Serbs' responsibility in Višegrad. You don't see what's going on directly. You didn't witness what happened in Fallujah, in Iraq. In Višegrad, people saw the houses burning. These things happened in their own neighborhoods. People who live there are directly responsible for what happened because no one has come forth to say who robbed the people, and who burned the houses."

Q: Are you saying that people know what happened and who did what?
A: "Višegrad is a small place, especially the center of town where some of these things happened. The deportations happened from the center of the city. They would bring in five or six buses, round people up, and deport them. Say you're a Serb and you're going to the store to buy eggs and bread. That Serb saw his neighbor being expelled. He knows who drove that bus. How is it possible to do nothing, and to say nothing, if you knew that neighbor for thirty years?

Annual commemoration of house-burning and massacre at Bikavac, Višegrad

"There were a couple of cases where some Serbs said to their neighbors, 'There will be killing tomorrow.' Someone took and guarded some Muslim children for a year, and took care of them.

"In another situation, there were 25,000 people who took part in the conquest of Srebrenica. Ok, their children didn't understand what those soldiers were doing. But didn't any of their wives ask what they were doing, what they had done?

"On the 17th of July in 1995 [after the fall of Srebrenica], civilians came to Srebrenica and looted the town. There were grandmothers who came and carted televisions away in wheelbarrows.

"You can't compare that kind of direct involvement and guilt to the responsibility of the Americans for what's going on in Palestine or Iraq. A better comparison would be what happened when the Japanese were rounded up in the US during World War II and taken off to the internment camps. How did people react then?

"I would like to see those Serbs of Višegrad punished, not to be able to live well, at least economically. Their hope is that tourism will save Višegrad. We can campaign against that tourism. They are creating a 'new Višegrad,' one that has erased any influence from the Ottoman period.

"In Višegrad the komunalci, the city sanitation agencies, were those who cleared away the bodies from the streets. This was an institutionalized project, coordinated by a bureaucracy. And in Vlasenica there are official, stamped documents ordering the war crimes.

"Whoever wanted to leave Višegrad had to get a stamped document of permission to leave. There were only three officials who could provide this document. There was one family that tried to stay, by signing a document of loyalty to SDS. They signed. They were killed about a month later. One of the children escaped with that loyalty document, that's how we know about it.

"So you can understand why I don't think people are innocent there. Everyone in the municipal infrastructure was involved. And in the hospital, doctors refused to treat wounded Muslims. Some Muslims were taken away from the hospital and killed. There was one man who escaped from the hospital, through a window, that's how we know these things happened."


I have an old friend from Germany who I met in Bosnia - at Srebrenica - about ten years ago. We still get together on occasion. Hessie was born before World War II and remembers some of that war. She told me that when she first came to Bosnia, very soon after the end of the war, she felt "at home." She thought about it and realized that the post-war smells brought her back to her childhood, to those smells from her post-war experience. Hessie noted that for her, being in Bosnia has been "a kind of therapy."

Hessie also told me that after World War II, "in world opinion, it was not permissible to acknowledge that Germans, not even those who were children, had suffered, and to some extent that is still the case." But those who know anything about life in Germany during and after the war know that Germans suffered, and that they were living in cities of rubble after the war, just like my friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina did. Many Germans - literally millions from the eastern regions of Europe - had been displaced or expelled as well.

This is interesting to me not just because it is a German experience, but also because it is about trauma, victimology, and guilt. Hessie experienced strange things after the war. She said, "I remember that I lost my sense of taste, and I couldn't feel anything. Those feelings come back. But it's a mechanism to remind you that something very painful is happening, and you need to protect yourself from that pain in order to be able to function, and I remember when I was just the age of five or six, when I saw the young schoolgirls in their uniforms in a parade. I knew that it would be difficult for me to escape doing this, and I was in a panic because I already knew that I hated that uniformed look and I hated having to march in line with others."

Hessie faced those feelings along with confronting the guilt of Germany for what was done in World War II. She said, "I tried to find my way to cope with the collective guilt. I asked, 'why am I blamed?' And at that time, already there was a return of the extreme right-wing. As a teenager, I made a decision - and I don't know how many of my generation did so - that I accepted that guilt.

"I knew that the collective blame didn't refer to me personally. But you have to take responsibility in the name of your people for the consequences of what happened, even though you weren't involved.

"I didn't feel guilty, but I accepted being treated this way, being blamed as a German, even threatened as a German, at the age of seven. My response was not to react as I was expected to - and then to show that some Germans were different."
Hessie talked about that point where people make the choice, consciously or not, of supporting fascism. She said, "People don't remember what happened, what their role was. They were normal, lived normal lives, and then at some point they made a jump to supporting the evil. It's a decision that people made, and they should remember and examine how that was made. If they don't examine and recover this memory, then it can be repeated.

"I had to know why I felt that way, I had to remember to go back in time. I made the personal decision to do this. I don't know why I did this, and others didn't."

Hessie referred to the "Milgram experiment" on obedience to authority figures, familiar to everyone who has taken a Psychology 101 class. In that experiment, the subject believed that he or she was administering painful, progressively higher-voltage shocks to someone, to "encourage a learning process." The experiment consistently brought results of over sixty percent compliance to the end of the test. The conclusion was, roughly, that people tend to forfeit their their personal responsibility to authority. Anyone who observes mass political behavior over a longer period of time would probably agree with the conclusion of the Milgram test.

Hessie noted, "Even if you take responsibility for your actions once in such a situation, you can't take it for granted that you will be strong enough do so again under other circumstances."

The people I mentioned above who "keep their heads down" have also relinquished their personal responsibility. They are Damir Arsenijević's "expressionless remainder" that I mentioned in my second (Tuzla) report. They are the people everyone in Bosnia mentions who, if faced with the threat of losing their jobs keep their heads down.

Recently I remarked to someone that the problems of the world exist because "adults act like children; they don't take responsibility for their behavior." Well, that person was a mother and she quickly set me straight about children. Children do take responsibility - to the extent that it is within their power. Children are learning, and growing into their responsibilities gradually. Ok, but that doesn't get adults off the hook. Adults need to keep growing and to realize that the whole world - from the polar ice cap to Srebrenica - is their back yard.

More Denial

Radovan Karad
žić, moving along in the defense phase of his trial, continues to stand facts on their head. I suppose that's the only hope he has of ever walking free again.

In late October one witness for the defense, a former operations officer in the 1st Romanija Brigade, testified that the Army of the Republika Srpska never launched any attacks on Sarajevo - it just defended itself, only shelling military targets in self-defense.

Another witness discussed the bombing of the Vijećnica or Town Hall. This building in the old part of Sarajevo, served as Bosnia's national library. In August of 1992 it was bombed and, along with a million books, went up in flames. The witness stated that the Vijećnica was being used as an ammunition depot - but that he doubted that it was shelled at all, "because the fire had spread from the ground up and not from the roof down."

On the other hand, meanwhile, in Belgrade the valiant women's organization Women in Black held a demonstration on November 9th. On this day of anti-fascism (the anniversary of Kristallnacht) they expressed a message against denial in an action they named "I Admit." They carried banners that read, "I admit that Serbia was the aggressor against Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo; that I am a Serb; that genocide was committed in Srebrenica; that Draža Mihailović was a war criminal; and that Kosovo is independent."

President of Women in Black Staša Zajović stated, "For us it's very insulting that they [promoters of the political rehabilitation of Draža Mihailović] are equating the fascists and the anti-fascists, that is, the Partisans and the Chetniks. I see this as a very dangerous tendency to revise the history of World War II." She also criticized President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolić for denying war crimes at Srebrenica.

No Comment:

I received this from one (former) recipient of my postings:

>>Mr. Lipman:
Please take my name off all your mailing lists. I am a Serb and I do not wish to receive
your one-sided, biased and offensive reports about Serbs. (Even seeing the name "Republika Srpska" painted on the trains irritated me.)
  Thanks, X. X.<<

I will argue with anyone who asserts that I am "anti-Serb" - if there's any chance we can have a conversation.

Prijedor: About the White Armband Commemoration

In my previous report, about Prijedor, I mentioned a comment that downplayed the importance of the "International White Armband Day" which took place on May 31st of this year. In response to my posting of that comment, I received a note amending and correcting it. Some of the information I conveyed about the commemorative activity was one person's opinion, not representative of the people who were actually involved in the action.

For background: the day's event was designed to remember the day when "the Bosnian Serb authorities in Prijedor issued a decree for all non-Serbs to mark their houses with white flags or sheets and to wear a white armband if they were to leave their houses. This was the first day of a campaign of extermination that resulted in executions, concentration camps, mass rapes and the ultimate removal of more than 94 percent of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from the territory of the Prijedor municipality." (This quote is from the article "Genocide: A Day to Stand against Denial, and Be Aware of How Its Seeds Are Planted," by Tanya Domi, June 1, 2012. See

The writer of the comment that I received pointed out that, in fact, the White Armband Day action prompted media coverage in many parts of the former Yugoslavia and abroad, thus directing much-deserved attention to the campaign for memorialization of Omarska and the other crimes against humanity that took place in Prijedor municipality.

Furthermore, I heard from Edin Ramulić. I had reported on my conversation with him, describing the work of the organization Izvor. He disagreed with the assessment that the white armband commemoration was not valuable to the memory of war crimes in Prijedor, and he also informed me that the event was, in fact, prominently commemorated in the town itself, and not only elsewhere.

Regarding the contribution of Prijedor's citizens abroad, Edin said, "Our most valuable human capacity is in the Diaspora, and we are not in a situation, on our own, to deal with the results of the war without the people of the Diaspora."

For more on the white armband event, see White Ribbons Against Genocide Denial, Balkan Insight, May 31, 2012.

For good photos of the armband action in various parts of the world, see also these sites:

Meanwhile, in Bosnia-Herzegovina some political developments are taking place that threaten to be more far-reaching and damaging to the state than anything that happened in the October elections or, for that matter, anything else that has taken place in Bosnia in quite some years.

The two fake Social Democrat Parties have made a deal. The SDP (mainly Bosniak, though ostensibly anti-nationalist Social Democrat Party headed by Zlatko Lagumd
žija, and the SNSD, Alliance of Independent Social Democrat Parties, headed by Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, met a couple of times towards the end of last month and arranged to take several steps to weaken the state government. The threatened moves have been described as a way of turning the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina into a "union of entities," i.e., definitively moving state power (and its financial resources) to the entity level.

The background leading to Lagumd
žija's capitulation to Dodik is interesting. I say capitulation because, once upon a time, the SDP was at least rhetorically a "pro-Bosnian" party, that is, one that advocated the unity of the country and a strengthening of the state government. Dodik has, for quite some time, advocated devolution of state power to the entity level - and quite often, even the dissolution of the state and the secession of the Republika Srpska. This is his open, long-term goal and weakening of the state is a step along the way.

In September, Dodik called for the removal of Lagumd
žija as Minister of Foreign Affairs at the state level, due to an insignificant infraction that Dodik opportunistically built up into a "federal case." The threat of his eventual removal was real; the SDA, which Lagumdžija had jilted last summer (see my first posting in this series), was also ready to remove Lagumdžija for its own reasons.

As it happened, after much threatening, Lagumd
žija was not dismissed, but a lower SDP official was removed as deputy speaker of the Parliament. By all appearances Lagumdžija's preservation as foreign minister was the result of a "murky political trade-off," as one commentator put it.

At the end of the month, after a number of meetings between the SDP and the SNSD, the two parties came out with a statement announcing their agreement on a number of changes. Here's a quick list of them:

--Transferring the process of appointment of prosecutors and judges from the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council to the state parliament.
--Introducing closed lists in the elections and removing the centralized function of vote counting, leaving that task to be performed exclusively at the municipal level.
--Lowering reserve holdings requirements for the Central Bank and making it responsible for debts of the entities.
--Allotting 100 million KM of the income of the Elektroprenos electrical transmission company to the entities.
--Elimination of the Law on Conflict of Interest

There's more (eighteen points in all), but I don't want to go too deep into this. However, I should explain the ramifications of the points listed here.

1. Transfer of the process of appointment of state prosecutors from the High Court and Prosecutorial Council to the state parliament:

--This politicizes the function of the state prosecutors by taking their appointment out of the hands of an impartial body. Essentially, the dominant parties, presently the SDP and the SNSD, will appoint those officials. This creates political control over a function that should be non-political. If such a move goes through, it will eliminate the possibility of prosecution of cronies of those high in government. A good example would be Naser Kelmendi, close to Fahrudin Radoncic. Radoncic is being considered for appointment to state-level Minister of Security. If this appointment goes through, and if the new arrangement for appointment of state prosecutors is established, then one of the biggest drug-runners in the Balkans will be able to return to Bosnia without concern for his freedom (see my first report on this business).

2. Introducing closed lists in the elections and removing the centralized function of vote counting, leaving that task to be performed exclusively at the municipal level:

--"Closed lists" means that when you vote, you vote for the whole party ticket and not for individuals in the party. To date, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, voters have had to vote for one party, but they have been able to choose their preference of candidates within that party. Instituting closed lists gives the party more control over its members, creating more conformity. Most of the political parties in BiH were already replicas of the old socialist model (without the socialism) of autocracy. The SDP is a very good example, and has lost most of its independent-minded members. Now the rest will be forced to march in line.

Referring to party members who conform to the dictated positions of the leadership, someone said, "It's not that they're afraid to say what they think. It's that they're afraid to think."

Furthermore, abolishing the central vote-counting office drastically increases the possibility for electoral corruption, because it is much easier to manipulate the count at the local level. That's just too much fragmentation for electoral monitors to control efficiently. 

3. Lowering reserve holdings requirements for the Central Bank and making it responsible for debts of the entities:

--The advocates of the package of SDP-SNSD proposals have characterized it as primarily involving steps to improve the economy and to make it work more efficiently. This move allows the Central Bank of Bosnia to provide credit, based on state reserve funds, to the entity governments. It also allows the Central Bank to purchase bonds from those governments. This is being proposed, among other things, because the country's commercial banks have stopped buying entity-backed bonds due to their lack of confidence in the economy. This move would essentially "entitize," that is, deliver to the entities, the funds that are customarily protected at the state level. In plainer English, it's a hijacking.

4. Allotting 100 million KM of the income of Elektroprenos to the entities:

--Elektroprenos is a state-level company, in function since 2006, that is responsible for the transmission of electric power. The company sends electric power from its source to the national grid and to neighboring countries. It makes a lot of money, and some of that has been sitting around unallocated. The SDP-SNSD agreement bequeaths about forty percent of those idle funds to the entities, and the rest, around 156 million KM, would go to investment projects. The idea has been criticized as a way to "patch the entity budgets." Both international officials and the Federation Minister of Energy, Mining, and Industry have called for reform in the company's investment plan before its earnings are plundered.

5. Elimination of the Law on Conflict of Interest:

--Removing this law would make it possible, for example, for owners or directors of large companies to simultaneously occupy high political functions in related ministries. This would obviously make it possible for the level of corruption in the country to be increased even beyond its present level.

This rather shocking package of proposals essentially works to remove the governmental competencies that have been established at the state level - as the result of quite some struggle -  devolving them to the entity level. For Dodik, this is a step towards secession of the Republika Srpska, his open goal. For Lagumd
žija it is a bald-faced capitulation, since he has ostensibly always been "pro-Bosnia." One newspaper heading read, "Lagumdžija has lost his compass."

The sellout of Lagumd
žija might be breathtaking to some, given his perceived affiliation with progressive ideals. But his power-mongering has actually been evident for quite some years to those familiar with the SDP's autocratic - let's say neo-Titoist - way of functioning.

Besides taking a large step towards "entitizing" Bosnia-Herzegovina, the deal also strengthens "party-ocracy" - rule of the party to the detriment of democratic functions. Finally, it robs from state resources to fund the entities - and a huge amount of those robbed funds will probably be raked off by powerful corrupt interests in the entities - giving the entity leaders more space to maneuver without engaging in any useful investment.

For international consumption, Dodik and Lagumd
žija have fluffed up the deal by presenting it as a solution to various economic ills and as a long-awaited step towards political harmony. International officials will only accept it as such if they are willing to watch Bosnia-Herzegovina continue to fail (more on this below). The Norwegian and Swedish Ambassadors were quick to condemn the weakening of the judicial and prosecutorial functions, however, since they have donated heavily to preserve the autonomy of the council.

International response from other corners has not been strong. But domestically, there has been a response of great outrage from all parties that are not involved in coalition-forming with the SDP and SNSD. (On the other hand, the leading Croat nationalist parties have signed on to the package.) Addressing the problem of party rule, one commentator stated that in the future, Bosnia-Herzegovina will look more like North Korea than some European state.

International Officials

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union High commissioner for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton visited Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of last month. The top diplomats of the EU and America, particularly Clinton, had stern words for the leaders of Bosnia.

Clinton said (as paraphrased by one news report), "Ethnic leaders - Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats - must stop hobbling each other and agree to reform the complicated, inefficient governing system put in place by the international community to end the 1992-95 war."

And this: "Bosnia has no time to waste on unproductive discussions ... Political leaders must do what the majority of citizens in this country wants, and that is Euro-Atlantic integration," Ashton said. (Both quotes are from "Clinton warns Bosnian Serbs against secession rhetoric," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, October 20, 2012.)

Clinton and Ashton reminded the leaders of Bosnia that they were "in danger of lagging behind neighboring countries" in the EU accession process due to their failure make progress on a list of conditions for EU membership. Commentators in the media remarked about the dysfunctionality of the Bosnian state.

The diplomats' admonitions, as usual, had no noticeable effect on the behavior of Bosnia's leaders. I would say that they were not expected to have an effect, because similar statements over the past six years have not been effective either. I would also dispute the statement that Bosnia is a dysfunctional state. It would be more accurate to say that Bosnia is a "functional non-state."

Just in the way, for example, that poverty has a function in America, political chaos in partitioned Bosnia functions quite well for the profiteer elite that cooperates behind the scenes to keep the country exactly where it is. I think this series of reports has illustrated that statement.

In other words, it works for the leaders. They are comfortable, and therefore they won't listen to Clinton and Ashton and things won't change, at least not because of a repetitious diplomatic warning.

Furthermore, Clinton and Ashton must know these things. I believe that international officials are intelligent people and that they are generally well informed. So if they are talking to the wall and saying useless things like, "Bosnia has to shape up," well, they are not doing so out of carelessness or ignorance.

Why then do they bother? My suspicion is that it is a charade for the purpose of appearances.

I was talking with Kurt Bassuener about this earlier in the month. We talked about the motivation behind the international community's ineffective approach towards BiH and its leaders. The international community is aware of the inherent dysfunctionality of the Dayton system, sometimes called the "Dayton straitjacket." One possible explanation for the international community's ineffectual role is that it is simply not able to coordinate its policies, both within the EU and between the EU and the US.

Kurt pointed out that the international officials have the attitude "that the leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina have a learning disability." But, he asserted, "it is they [the internationals] who have the learning disability."

Is it possible that the international community is so hapless? One commentator characterized the i.c.'s policies as a combination of the "
grossest incompetence and totally bad faith."

One more point from Kurt on this: he notes that the international community pretends there is a democracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But then it invites the leaders of the six parties to Brussels for talks, implicitly acknowledging that it's an oligarchy (what I and others have called a "party-ocracy") that runs the country.  

Srebrenica Elections Update

As I mentioned at the end of my last report, there is an ongoing campaign to reverse the results of the October 7th municipal elections in Srebrenica (see my third report in this series, about Srebrenica). It is not over yet!

The Coalition for Republika Srpska, advocating for an annulment of the elections and a re-vote, took its case to the appeals council of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Last week, the Court threw the question back to the Central Electoral Commission, saying that it was within the CEC's authority to resolve the issue.

The CEC had decided before, on a 5-2 vote, that the Srebrenica elections were performed in a legitimate manner. Now they have a chance to change their minds and call for another election. It may happen. Word has it that there is pressure both from Croat nationalist officials (who are in bed with the Serb nationalists) and from the SDP (who are apparently, at present, in the pocket of Dodik) to annul the elections.

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